For Golf to Survive Climate Change, Courses Innovate

Half Moon Bay Golf Links in California
Half Moon Bay Golf Links in California, courtesy Cristina Glebova | Unsplash

As drought and climate change take a toll on golf courses around the globe, sustainable innovations look to keep the sport’s beloved turf in the fairway.

California is no stranger to serious drought conditions. But since 2007, the conditions have worsened, with some of the driest and hottest years on record since. Climate change is making California’s drought conditions more intense, and with smaller rainy seasons in between, more damaging.

Water restrictions help—but only when municipalities and residents actually abide by them. The state, which is currently battling its third straight year of drought conditions and its driest year on record, is still falling short of its water conservation targets. One of the main sources of fresh water for the state—the Colorado River—is also drying up. Now, the state is being forced to take steps to reduce water or the Federal government will step in.

“California and six other Western states have less than 60 days to pull off a seemingly impossible feat: Cut a multi-way deal to dramatically reduce their consumption of water from the dangerously low Colorado River,” Lara Korte wrote in Politico earlier this month.

“Despite the oppressive dryness that has plagued the region for more than 20 years, California has, in large part, avoided reductions to its usage of the Colorado River,” Korte says. “But now that reservoir levels have fallen drastically, the Golden State may be forced to use less water, a prospect that would only further strain a state that is already asking residents in some regions to stop watering lawns and take shorter showers.”

a golf ball at the hole
Courtesy Soheb Zaidi | Unsplash

This could mean big cuts in water usage for the state’s golf industry—there are nearly 1,000 courses across California, just a few hundred behind Florida, the nation’s golf capital. Golf has always been a popular sport, but it’s seen an uptick in interest in the last two years as the pandemic had people looking for recreational activities they could do outside.

According to Golf.com, U.S. golfers logged 20 percent more rounds in August 2020 than in August 2019. Overall, the industry saw an average uptick of more than six percent, and projections suggest an eight percent year-on-year growth, even as other activities return to normal. Those who took up golf during the pandemic are likely to continue playing; sales of golf equipment jumped 32 percent in 2020. And given golf equipment can be a significant financial investment, it’s likely to keep those new players on the course.

Water usage

Golf courses fall under the label of “functional turf,” which also includes parks, sports fields, and cemeteries. In total, functional turf in California makes up about nine percent of the state’s water usage.

The state’s golf industry has been operating in “Level 2 drought” conditions since 2009, which has cut water usage by 45 percent. But now, since the recent drought restrictions went into effect, Los Angeles, for example, which is home to nearly three dozen golf courses, has moved to a “Level 3” drought ordinance, which is aiming to reduce water usage by a further 30 percent.

About 25 percent of the golf courses in Los Angeles county use recycled water, which is exempt from the state’s ordinance. But they are also irrigating with a 25 percent minimum reduction from their normal watering cycles.

Courses have also looked to replace water-intensive turf with more water-efficient grasses such as warm-season grass. Some of the state’s courses are investing in new irrigation systems that are more targeted. They’re also removing turf from areas that aren’t essential to the course play.

Southern California-based Rain Systems, a company founded by Jim and Elaine Sibert, may have a solution for the golf and other functional turf industries. Their novel tech can reduce irrigation by as much as 50 percent and lasts for about three years.

“We have a patented technology which is part of a larger machine that installs hydrogels directly into the root-zone of turf seamlessly,” Elaine tells Ethos via email. “Our machine uses water pressure to create pin-point holes into existing turf while installing hydrogels into each injection point simultaneously. Once installed, the hydrogels absorb, store and release water back to the soil and the turf. This leads to a reduction in water needed by up to 50 percent while maintaining healthy green grass.”

The under-turf hydrogels fill up with water and release it over time, almost like air slowly being let out of a balloon.

Rain Systems has brought its tech to a number of functional turf properties across Southern California including Cal State University Northridge, Los Angeles United School District, Pomona College, City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, City of Irvine, Soule Park Golf Course in Ojai and Fort Washington Golf Course near Fresno.

But it’s not just a lack of water that’s taking a toll on the state’s golf courses. The recent spate of wildfires, which is also due to the state’s drought conditions, has led to poor air quality and course closures in recent years.

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight recently predicted rising temperatures for the Grand Slam tennis tournaments by 2050 as a result of climate change. The golf industry is facing much of the same environmental pressures.

Course innovations

But the industry is taking steps. Not all that dissimilar to the Rain Systems technology, Woburn, which was the host course for the 2019 Women’s British Open, created a reservoir for rainwater catchment than it used to irrigate its turf. It also drilled a borehole to tap into groundwater.

And while in the face of persistent drought conditions a green golf course can seem indulgent, there are actually upsides to keeping them green, even when water is scarce.

“Golf courses are sequestering a considerable amount of carbon, which I think few people actually associate with golf,” Edwin Roald, a renowned Icelandic architect and founder of Eureka Golf told CNN. “On the flipside, golf is a large land user and bound to be using wetlands in places. Emissions when you drain wetlands are so great.”

panther national
Panther National course, courtesy

Roald says it’s only a matter of time before the golf industry will be asked questions about what can be done with those wetlands, “that’s where we can have the most impact.”

Grasslands absorb nearly as much CO2 as forests. Forests sequester about 39 percent of carbon and grasslands account for about 34 percent. A golf course isn’t the same as a biodiverse grassland area, but it’s soil-based, and there’s inherent value there.

A variety of efforts are underway to green the greens that go beyond water conservation.

A course in Finland is introducing robotic mowers that run on renewable energy. Auckland, New Zealand’s Remuera Golf Club reduced its CO2 emissions by 25 tons in 2018-2019 just by reducing energy use at the club. Solar panels in Switzerland at Golf de Payerne reduced more than 1,000 tons of CO2.

Earlier this year Swiss entrepreneur Dominik Senn announced a new Palm Beach golf community with a course designed by PGA legend Jack Nicklaus and up-and-comer Justin Thomas that will be entirely powered by Tesla Energy. The Max Strang-designed community is also putting a focus on protecting the surrounding 2,000 acres of wetlands.

“It’s our job to try to make this golf course a little different, a little more special,” Nicklaus said, “something that’s interesting and something that will attract people out here.”

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